Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Burnt and Blossoming: Material Mysticism in Trilogy and Four Quartets

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Burnt and Blossoming: Material Mysticism in Trilogy and Four Quartets

Article excerpt

In 1943, Osbert and Edith Sitwell organized a gala poetry reading in London, intended to promote the arts during wartime. (1) The American expatriate writer H.D. read a poem proclaiming the endurance of Ancient Wisdom, personified as a woman in blue, and the ability of her devotees to be vanquished and yet retain agency:

   your ashes,
   sainted ones,
   your chastened hearts,
   your empty frames,
   your very bones,
   still serve
   to praise my name. (H.D. Collected Poems 484)

Here H.D. suggests a mingling of sacred and profane, material reality and transcendence. At the same event, T. S. Eliot read the section of The Wasteland that ends with the words, "London Bridge is falling down" (Bryher 84). Both poets also engaged in larger projects comprising a creative response to the destruction of war.2 Their major poetic works of the Second World War, Trilogy and Four Quartets, both use themes of loss, renewal, and redemption to explore and complicate a dynamic relationship between the material and the spiritual. Despite the similarities of the poems' composition, setting, and themes, they are rarely read together critically. (3) I suggest that bringing Trilogy and Four Quartets into dialogue yields productive readings of both poems that demonstrate the breadth and complexity of the mystical imaginary in late modernist poetry.

Both Trilogy and Four Quartets are rife with references to bombed buildings, loss, and ghostly presences. At the same time, images relating to new life, growth, and spiritual renewal also proliferate in the texts. Although very different in style, both poems can be read as modernist epics, detailing a spiritual quest that seeks regeneration and redemption. Both Eliot and H.D. draw upon religious sources and use similar imagery to develop their creative visions. However, the effects of such sources and images are significantly different, reflecting the poets' differing religious and literary commitments.

Numerous critics have commented on the mystical elements of Four Quartets, with particular attention to apophatic mysticism, or negative theology. (4) Put simply, apophasis is the negation of all attributes of God; its ultimate expression is silence. Readings of the Quartets' mysticism have located the primary tension between human desire and divine love, between historical or personal time and eternity, or between apophatic discourse and an affirmative, universalizing metaphysics (Donoghue "On 'Burnt Norton'" 15; Kearns "Negative Theology" 131-57; Levenson 158-78; Moody 176-77). However, reading Four Quartets alongside Trilogy indicates a different, albeit related, set of tensions. My reading of Trilogy finds vision and renewal situated within the natural world, rituals, and bodily experience; thus the poem constructs an imaginative material mysticism. Bringing this understanding of mysticism to bear on Four Quartets reveals an axis of tension between apophatic transcendence and material particularity. For Eliot, redemption comes through time and location, while for H.D., redemption is discovered within material particularity. This is, of course, a rather simplified view of the texts. Rather than beginning with the earlier, and more well-known, Four Quartets, I begin with Trilogy, in order to elaborate a way of reading which will inform my approach to Eliot (although I assume that Four Quartets is a popular enough text to permit illuminating comparisons in the course of my reading of Trilogy). Turning then to Four Quartets, I trace Eliot's negative asceticism which is oriented toward transcendence, and finally turn to consider the evidence of an intractable materiality in Four Quartets that refuses such a trajectory.

H.D.'s Material Mysticism

Trilogy opens with reference to the London Blitz, establishing a community of narrator and readers in the face of destruction: "An incident here and there,/and rails gone (for guns)/from your (and my) old town square" (H. …

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